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A woman sitting in a large field uses traceability technology.

Two decades ago, Microsoft Word did not even recognize the term “traceability.” But as cases of mad cow disease, spinach outbreaks, and seafood fraud escalated throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, the term rocketed into the food industry lexicon. Traceability practices soon became commonplace as food industry actors sought to avoid, or remediate, the damaging impacts of outbreaks and recalls. Early traceability efforts were largely paper based, but within a decade, several digital solutions had emerged to support internal traceability and food safety efforts.  

Though paper-based traceability practices are far from obsolete, the pool of traceability solutions available to food industry actors has continued to expand. The advent of cloud-based computing and SaaS (software as a service) solutions reduced the internal infrastructure needed to support traceability, improving the accessibility of traceability technology across the food chain. From barcoding and mobile apps to blockchain, new technologies have advanced the practice of traceability and the capabilities of traceability solutions.  

Yet, while traceability practices have undoubtedly improved over time, end-to-end traceability remains aspirational. Food supply chains have become longer, more complex, and increasingly globalized, making it harder to move traceability data through the food system. The scope and duration of recalls that have recently wreaked havoc on the U.S. food system, with consumer illness and product shortages, illustrate the need for continued improvement in the traceability space. 

Addressing this need for improvement, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released the New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint in July 2020, initiating a technology-focused approach toward bettering the safety of our food system. The first of the Blueprint’s four core elements is Tech-Enabled Traceability, and to support this approach, the FDA hosted the Low- or No-Cost Tech-Enabled Traceability Challenge in 2021. The goal of the challenge was to encourage stakeholders to develop traceability hardware, software, or data analytics platforms that were low cost or free to the end user. 

The challenge attracted global participation, with 90 innovative solutions submitted. The experts at IFT’s Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC) used the submissions to evaluate the usability, cost, and interoperability of tech-enabled traceability. The GFTC’s assessment was optimistic about the availability of traceability technology, with nearly 70 percent of the submitted solutions commercially available and representing the full range of supply chain segments, as well as a variety of commodities. The diversity in solution type, technology, and purpose among submitted solutions reflects the diverse spectrum of traceability use cases and stakeholders. 

However, there were some limitations. The accessibility of the solutions was limited by low multilingual capability and inherent support and infrastructure costs. Additionally, the submitted solutions lacked the ability to function cohesively in a system, primarily due to inconsistent adherence to data standards, resulting in hindered interoperability. Nevertheless, these limitations are not insurmountable, and the report offers recommendations for food industry stakeholders as they work toward the common goal of end-to-end traceability.  

“IFT recognizes that the knowledge, means, and technology have been developed to make end-to-end, tech-enabled traceability a reality, but this cannot be achieved without collective action and continued innovation among the diverse food industry community,” said Blake Harris, technical director of IFT’s Global Food Traceability Center. “Developing low-cost traceability solutions that are intuitive to all levels of experience, available in multiple languages, promote the use of data standards and data communication protocols, and consider applicability to specific supply chain segments or commodities are critical for advancing traceability.” 

In 2022, the FDA contracted with IFT to develop a report on food traceability technology based on the 90 technology solutions submitted during its 2021 Low- or No-Cost Tech-Enabled Traceability Challenge. Today, we are pleased to release the report’s results in hopes they spark ongoing discussion about the role of technology in traceability and provide high-level recommendations to key stakeholders about the work still to be done to create a flourishing, tech-enabled food traceability environment. Read the report


Sara Bratager
is a food traceability and food safety scientist at IFT.  

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